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THE NEIGHBORHOOD SURVEY PROCESS

by Dr. Thomas W. Hanchett

In 1981 the Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Properties Commission, a city-county agency, began a three-and-a-half year project to record buildings in the city's older neighborhoods and identify those of historic and architectural importance. Phase I of this Charlotte Neighborhood Survey focused on the Central City area, Charlotte's oldest section, on Biddleville, its earliest well-preserved black neighborhood, and on Myers Park and the newer sections of Dilworth, the city's two finest pre-World War I suburbs. Phase II targeted three more early suburbs -- Elizabeth, Plaza Midwood, and Crescent Heights -- plus Cherry, believed to be a turn-of-the-century "model Negro housing development." Phase III included suburban Eastover and Washington Heights, plus the blue-collar textile mill neighborhoods of Belmont-Villa Heights, Chadwick Hoskins, and North Charlotte. This work covers all important pre-World War II development areas in the City of Charlotte.

The work of a neighborhood survey goes far beyond consulting published histories of an area. Each building in the target neighborhoods is photographed. Research is done in early city directories, property deeds, and even in water hook-up records to determine when the structures were built and who their earliest occupants were. This data will be kept on file permanently by the North Carolina Division of Archives and History in Raleigh. The Neighborhood Survey produces a report with a written history of each neighborhood, its development, architecture and residents. The report also includes essays focusing on the city's architectural development and city planning efforts, as well as a broad history of the growth of the city as a whole.

The Neighborhood Survey's final product is a list of buildings and places that should be considered for local designation as "historic properties." Under North Carolina law N.C.G.S. 160A-399.4, local governing bodies are empowered to designate a structure or site as an historic property if it possesses "special significance in terms of its history, architecture, and/or cultural importance." Such properties must also possess "integrity of design, setting, workmanship, materials, feeling and/or association."

Within the City of Charlotte, the City Council makes such determinations after careful study by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Properties Commission. Each prospective property identified by the Survey is placed on the Commission's Study List, and an exhaustive Survey and Research Report is prepared on it by a trained historian and architectural historian. Based on the report, the Commission votes whether or not to recommend the property to City Council for consideration.

If the Commission votes affirmatively, a public hearing is scheduled before Council to ensure input from property owners and other interested citizens. The report is also forwarded to the staff of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History in Raleigh for further professional comment. Based on this extensive groundwork, the City Council decides whether the property is of such significance to the community that it merits the special protection of historic property status.

One important benefit of designation is community recognition of its historic resources. A free pamphlet distributed by the Commission, entitled Historic Properties in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, includes photographs and historic information on all historic sites. Owners of designated historic properties are entitled to apply for a fifty percent deferral of ad valorem property taxes. If the property is later altered to such an extent that it is deemed no longer historic, the owner must pay back three years of the deferred tax. Before the owner can make any material alteration to the property, he or she must notify the Historic Properties Commission, which grants a Certificate of Appropriateness if it is convinced that the alteration will not harm the property's historic character.

Unfortunately, under North Carolina law, the Commission cannot forbid demolition of a designated historic property. It can, at most, require the owner to wait for 180 days. This provision is intended to give the Commission and community time to work with the owner to find a way to save the structure.

The Charlotte Neighborhood Survey primarily identifies individual properties for potential local designation. Local historic property designation is only one of three legal mechanisms available in North Carolina to help protect older buildings, however.

The locally designated historic district is a way to preserve important groups of structures. People have come to realize that individual landmarks can become meaningless out of context. The church surrounded by expressways or the grand mansion in the midst of used car lots give no feeling for the neighborhoods they once dominated. A street of modest bungalows, preserved in their original condition, tell us as much about a past era as the isolated birthplace of a famous person.

The process of designating a district moves from research to approval by City Council in much the same way as for an individual property. District designation carries fewer regulations than individual designation, and includes no tax reduction.

The third legal preservation tool is the National Register of Historic Places. It is a list, kept by the Secretary of the Interior in Washington, of buildings and districts that should be treated with care when federal money is spent. The Register came to maturity in the 1960s when federally funded Urban Renewal and highway building were inadvertently destroying important sites. Historic places of local and regional, as well as national, significance are safeguarded under its provisions.

The Division of Archives and History in Raleigh handles National Register designation for North Carolina. Nominations to the National Register are researched and reviewed extremely thoroughly, and designation is considered an honor and a mark of authenticity. Listing in the register places no controls on private owners, but rather regulates government-funded projects.

In 1981 President Ronald Reagan added a new provision to National Register designation. Now, owners who renovate buildings listed in the Register may take a twenty-five percent investment tax credit -that is, deduct one-fourth of their renovation costs directly from the income tax that they owe the federal government. The renovation must be substantial, amounting to more than the base value of the structure. It must follow guidelines prepared by the office of the Secretary of the Interior to ensure that the historic character of the building is maintained. Finally, the renovated structure must be used for income-producing purposes. This tax provision has made historic preservation extremely attractive to investors, and has already resulted in the adaptive reuse of Charlotte's Mecklenburg Investment Company building and old Dilworth Fire Station.

The present Charlotte Neighborhood Survey builds on earlier work done in the city and county. Since 1973, when the Historic Properties Commission was first chartered, over 80 structures have been designated historic properties. Many of these have been brought to the Commission's attention by owners, elected officials, Commission members and community residents.

In 1976 the first effort was made to systematize the study process by making a large-scale "inventory" of buildings. During that summer, University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor James Vaseff, University of Virginia professor H. McKelden Smith and student volunteers carried out a quick survey to record pre-1900 buildings throughout Mecklenburg, one of North Carolina's earliest inventories. Though dating was somewhat unreliable due to heavy reliance on county tax office records, the project did produce data cards on some 1,700 properties and is now part of the working files of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Planning Commission.

A second, more in-depth, survey occurred in 1978 of a single neighborhood, the original grid street area of Dilworth. Historian Dr. Dan Morrill and architectural historian Ruth Little-Stokes produced a thick manuscript, Architectural Analysis: Dilworth: Charlotte's Initial Streetcar Suburb under the sponsorship of the Dilworth Community Development Organization. It identified a number or individually significant buildings that have subsequently been designated by City Council, and proposed that the core of the area be named a local Historic District, an action taken by the City Council in 1983. The present Charlotte Neighborhood Survey extends this process to other early Charlotte neighborhoods.